After months of warnings that Israel’s siege is causing famine, children begin to die in Gaza

RAFAH, Gaza Strip –

It is not just Israeli bombs that have killed children in war-torn Gaza; Now some are also dying of hunger.

Officials have long warned of the risk of famine in the Palestinian territory that has been under Israeli bombing, offensives and siege for the past five months.

Hunger is most acute in northern Gaza, which has been isolated by Israeli forces and suffered long cuts in food supplies. According to the Ministry of Health, at least 20 people have died from malnutrition and dehydration in Kamal Adwan and Shifa hospitals in the north. Most of the dead are children, including some as young as 15, as well as a 72-year-old man.

Particularly vulnerable children are also beginning to succumb in the south, where access to help is more regular.

At the Emirati Hospital in Rafah, 16 premature babies have died from causes related to malnutrition in the past five weeks, one of the senior doctors told The Associated Press.

“The child deaths we feared are here,” Adele Khodr, UNICEF’s Middle East chief, said in a statement earlier this week.

Malnutrition generally takes time to cause death and affects children and the elderly first. Other factors may play a role. Malnourished mothers have difficulties breastfeeding their children. Diarrheal diseases, rampant in Gaza due to a lack of clean water and sanitation, leave many unable to keep down the calories they eat, said Anuradha Narayan, a UNICEF child nutrition expert. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, sometimes leading to death from other diseases.

Israel largely shut down the entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies after launching its assault on Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, allowing only a small passage of aid trucks through two crosses in the south.

Israel has blamed growing hunger in Gaza on UN agencies, saying they are failing to distribute supplies piling up at Gaza crossings. UNRWA, the largest U.N. agency in Gaza, says Israel restricts some goods and imposes cumbersome inspections that delay entry.

Additionally, distribution within Gaza has been crippled, with U.N. officials saying Israeli forces regularly turn away convoys, the military often denies safe passage amid fighting, and starving Palestinians snatch aid from trucks en route to delivery points.

Faced with growing alarm, Israel bowed to American and international pressure and said this week it will open crossings for aid directly to northern Gaza and allow maritime shipments.

Despair in the north

Conditions in the north, largely under Israeli control for months, have become desperate. Israeli forces have reduced entire districts of Gaza City and its surroundings to rubble. Still, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain.

It is almost impossible to find meat, milk, vegetables and fruits, according to several residents who spoke to the AP. The few items in the stores are random and sold at hugely inflated prices, mainly nuts, snacks and spices. People have taken barrels of chocolate from bakeries and are selling small quantities of it.

Most people eat a weed that grows in vacant lots, known as “khubaiza.” Fatima Shaheen, a 70-year-old woman who lives with her two children and her children in northern Gaza, said that boiled khubaiza is her main meal, and that her family has also ground food intended for the rabbits to use as flour.

“We’re dying for a piece of bread,” Shaheen said.

Qamar Ahmed said his 18-month-old daughter Mira mostly eats boiled grass. “There is no food that suits her age,” said Ahmed, a researcher at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor and economic journalist. His 70-year-old father feeds his own food to Ahmed’s young son, Oleyan. “We tried to force him to eat and he refused,” Ahmed said of his father.

Mahmoud Shalaby, who lives in the Jabaliya refugee camp, said he saw a man in the market give a bag of chips to his two children and tell them to prepare it for breakfast and lunch. “Everyone knows I’ve lost weight,” said Shalaby, senior program director for the aid group Medical Aid for Palestinians in northern Gaza.

Dr. Husam Abu Safiya, acting director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, told the AP that his staff currently treats between 300 and 400 children a day, and that 75% of them suffer from malnutrition.

Recent airdrops of aid by the United States and other countries provide much smaller amounts of aid than truck deliveries, which have become rare and sometimes dangerous. UNRWA says Israeli authorities have not allowed it to deliver supplies to the north since January 23. The World Food Organization, which had suspended deliveries for security reasons, said the military forced its first convoy north in two weeks to turn back. Tuesday.

When the Israeli army organized a food delivery to Gaza City last week, troops guarding the convoy opened fire (at what they perceived as a threat, the army says) as thousands of starving Palestinians besieged the trucks. Some 120 people died in the shooting, as well as being trampled in the chaos.

Getting worse towards the south

Yazan al-Kafarna, 10, died on Monday after almost a week of unsuccessful treatment in the city of Rafah, in the far south of Gaza. Photos of the boy showed him extremely emaciated, with twig-like limbs and deeply sunken eyes in a face wrinkled to the skull.

Al-Kafarna was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects motor skills and can make swallowing and feeding difficult. His parents said they had difficulty finding food he could eat, including soft fruits and eggs, since they fled their home in the north.

He died due to extreme muscle wasting caused mainly by lack of food, according to Dr. Jabr al-Shair, head of the children’s emergency department at Abu Youssef Najjar Hospital.

Recently, around 80 malnourished children crowded the hospital wards. Aya al-Fayoume, a 19-year-old mother displaced to Rafah, had brought her three-month-old daughter, Nisreen, who had lost a lot of weight during the winter months, sick with diarrhea and persistent vomiting. Because of her diet of mostly canned goods, al-Fayoume said she does not produce enough breast milk for Nisreen.

“Everything I need is expensive or unavailable,” he said.

Fresh food supplies in Rafah have dwindled, while its population has risen to more than 1 million with residents displaced. The main things available are canned goods, often found in care packages.

At Emirati Hospital, Dr. Ahmed al-Shair, deputy director of the nursing unit, said recent deaths of premature babies were due to malnutrition among mothers. Malnutrition and extreme stress are factors causing premature and low-weight births, and doctors say cases have anecdotally increased during the war, although the UN does not have statistics.

Al-Shair said premature babies receive treatment for several days to improve their weight. But then they are left at home, which is often an underheated tent, with mothers too malnourished to breastfeed and milk difficult to obtain. Parents sometimes give newborns tap water, which is often dirty and causes diarrhea.

After a few days, the babies “are brought to us in a terrible state. Some were brought in already dead,” al-Shair said. He said 14 babies at the hospital died in February and two more so far in March.

The hospital’s wards currently hold 44 babies less than 10 days old weighing as little as 2 kilograms (4 pounds), some on life support. Each incubator has at least three premature babies, increasing the risk of infection. Al-Shair said he fears some will suffer the same fate when they return home.

“We treat them now, but God knows what the future will be,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Sam Magdy and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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